college textbooks cheap

Nine Ways to Steer Clear of Crazy Textbook Costs

Kids (and their parents) can save lots of money each and every semester.

If you’ve got a college-bound son or daughter, paying for college textbooks – which can easily cost thousands of dollars in four years – is one component of affording college. Fortunately, Benson has some strange expertise in this area… At The College Prep Parent, we want to help your student arrive – and thrive – in college. And that includes paying for college! We hope these tips come in handy once “Buying College Textbooks” hits your kid’s to-do list (and your wallet).

(The tips Benson offers should also apply to textbooks for homeschool, or if your child’s high school requires book purchases.)


Part of my unique life story includes starting a college textbook business fourteen years ago – and it continues to be a useful (though small) income supplement today. Long story short: I know textbooks. And I know several ways that kids (or their parents) can save each and every semester.

The other day I was sharing ways our church’s worship leader could save on his daughter’s college books. As my suggestions piled up, I realized this would be helpful to put in print (for the first time ever!).

1. Avoid the Campus Store (Almost Always)

The campus retailer has a major location advantage, so they have less reason to compete on price. Yes, they can help your student identify exactly which textbooks are requested for each class. But they can also scout out that information (it’s usually on the store’s web site anyway) and then follow the tips below.

2. Buy (or Rent) College Textbooks Online

There may be other textbook retailers besides the on-campus store. And yes, brick-and-mortar stores may have better service than an anonymous online seller. But this particular article is about saving money, and that’s going to mean purchasing textbooks online.

But here’s the first spot where you should decide just how much money you’re looking to save. Googling “best textbook prices” will offer a slew of options – including sites that compare prices between all the other sites. Comparing prices book-by-book and across lots of sites will certainly bring the cheapest total, but it could also take awhile.

So you (or whoever is paying for the books) should decide what makes the most sense. Even buying all of a semester’s books from Amazon or Chegg (two of the most popular) is likely to save serious money over most retail stores. Plus, some sites have certain perks, like free shipping options or rock-solid guarantees. (Check the return policies, too!) Whether you choose to maximize profits or simply spend a little time on one or two sites, online buying is usually the way to go.

3. Make Your Kid Do the Buying (Even If You Do the Paying)

This has nothing to do with saving money, but note that shopping for textbooks is an easy way for your kid to take ownership of their education. It also provides a handy lab for thinking about real costs, comparing prices, and paying attention to details.

Plus, your student is likely to be in a better position to follow all these tips… so maybe this does save money after all!

4. Buy Used Textbooks (Almost Always)

Some kids truly need an unmarked book in good shape to learn best. For everyone else, there’s usually very little reason not to buy the cheapest book available. In the case of most textbooks, they’re not going to be “keepers” beyond a handful of months – so why do they need to be beautiful?

It’s worth noting that on many sites, the “worst” condition (it’s the “Acceptable” condition on Amazon, for instance) might indicate a book in pretty bad shape. Unless a better-condition textbook costs several dollars more, choosing a “Good” or better book may be well worth a few extra pennies.

More importantly, some classes require an internet code, companion manual, or something else originally included with the textbook. Those may be missing with Used books. It’s vital to examine the description with the book under consideration to make sure vital items are included (and in the case of internet codes, haven’t been used before). If that fact can’t be discovered, then a new book might be necessary – or finding an unused code or companion resource for sale as well.

5. Rent Textbooks (Sometimes)

Did you know that textbook rental is a big option now? Whether in-town or online, students can often rent a textbook for the length of the term (less expensively than it costs to buy).

Deciding whether to rent or buy mostly comes down to comparing prices… including any money a student might get from reselling a book they bought. (See below for notes on reselling books.) Renting means there’s no monetary return at the end of the semester. Further, if the book is lost or damaged, you might pay huge fees.

If renting a particular book looks like the best option, the online rental options will likely be cheaper – IF a book has rental options available. But it’s also very likely a used book will be cheaper to buy online than to rent locally (and then the purchased book can be resold later, as well!).

When considering rentals, be sure to consider if

  • There’s any reason to keep a book beyond one term
  • Your student runs a risk of losing or damaging his or her book
  • Your student plans to highlight or write notes in the book (usually a limited amount of highlighting or underlining is allowed for rental books, but check the fine print!)

6. Borrow Textbooks

What’s even better than renting? Borrowing a textbook from the campus library (or using the reference copies there). For early birds or those who confine their studying to the library, this is obviously a big win from a financial standpoint.

7. Procrastinate (Sometimes)

In some college classes, certain books don’t end up being used at all! Other times, a professor changes their mind about textbooks… but doesn’t notify students until the first class. A student might realize they can get all they need from class lectures, or they may find a friend/roommate/classmate willing to share their textbook. And of course, if a student is considering dropping a class, it could be wise to wait on textbook purchases.

Of course, procrastination won’t always be the best course here. But often a student can easily wait until after their first class to purchase their book. (They’ll want to choose a fast shipping option, though.)

Here’s one caveat: Online prices do, in general, rise across the first weeks of the semester as students snatch up the cheapest copies first. So if it looks like a book will most likely be used, it’s worth purchasing it a couple of weeks before school starts. (You can pay for the slowest shipping option that way, too.) Just make sure to leave enough time to return it, if the professor adjusts their textbook requirement.

8. Explore Alternate College Textbook Versions

If you want the exact copy of a book listed for a class, be sure to search by ISBN (a 13-digit number on the back or inside). That ensures you’ll get the right book (since multiple editions or similar titles may be available online too.) However, one way to save quite a bit is to look for alternate versions of a given textbook. Here are some options:

  • On some textbook sites and eBay, Instructor’s/Teacher’s Editions offer the same content but were free “review copies” at one time.
  • On some textbook sites and eBay, International Editions are often quite a bit cheaper – but it’s important to ensure that the content is the same as the U.S. Edition (even if it might be in black-and-white). The book will probably be softback (and lighter!), with a different cover.
  • Occasionally, a textbook will offer a looseleaf version (to put in a 3-ring binder) or an electronic/e-reader version.
  • It’s worth asking or emailing a professor (let your student do this!) to ask if a slightly older edition would be suitable for this class. New editions often emerge every two or three years… and no, the content doesn’t always change that much. Even one edition earlier than the current one might cost $100 less online!

9. Sell Those Textbooks!

A good portion of textbook savings comes from the payment a student gets when selling their books at the end of the semester. (If you didn’t realize this is common, then your kid might be annoyed that I’ve just informed you. Now you get to decide whether to let them keep it or not!)

This topic could fill an entire article, but here are few pointers for maximizing the return:

  • If your student is willing to read the instructions, selling online directly (on Amazon, eBay, etc.) usually recoups the most money. But that requires setting up a Seller account, watching for the book(s) to sell, and then shipping quickly. In some cases textbooks bought online can be sold a few months later at nearly the same price (minus commissions or fees).
  • For an easier experience (but less of a return), several sites online will buy textbooks directly from students.
  • In some cases, local stores might offer more buyback money than can be received online, because they know they can resell the book at high prices (see #1 above!). So comparison shopping (or “comparison selling”) makes sense.
  • Most importantly, your student should sell those textbooks quickly. Whether they wait until the first week of the new semester (if selling online) or sell in-town as soon as Finals end, if a book will ever be sold, it should be sold ASAP. It always pains me to see friends with old textbooks on their bookshelves. What might have brought a hundred bucks a few years ago could literally be purchased for a penny now.

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